Sergio Oliva Training - The Dead Sea Scrolls of Muscle by Marty Gallagher

Sergio Oliva Training - The Dead Sea Scrolls of Muscle

Superfreak: Sergio Oliva 1972 (above), 5 foot 9 inches, 240 pounds – the only bodybuilder that intimidated Arnold

Once in a great while I come across some piece of invaluable Old School training information that excites me as much in 2020 as it did back in the 60s and 70s when I first read it. I recently came across a golden nugget of ancient training wisdom that I somehow missed (I didn’t miss much) when it was first published in 1972. It was first published in a cheesy muscle mag, MTI Illustrated, that I didn’t bother to read.  The article was on how one of my teen heroes, Sergio Oliva, trained at his peak. Sergio Oliva training info to me was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls of Muscle!

I loved Sergio Oliva because he had a superhuman physique. He was great and got greater. Sergio was first and foremost, an athlete, a natural, an Olympic weightlifter, a good one. He jumped into the just-emerging sport of bodybuilding and effortlessly dominated. His battles with Arnold were epic, the true Clash of the Titans. Arnold said without hesitation that Sergio Oliva was, hands down, the greatest bodybuilder he ever competed against.

Born in 1941, as a preteen and all during his teenage years young Sergio Oliva was expected to work all day every day in the rural Cuban sugarcane fields. His father was a peasant. Overworked and underfed, Sergio grew up lean and hungry. This work ethic and eternal hunger stayed with him the rest of his life. He broke out of rural poverty by joining the army – just in time for the Castro revolution. Fighting on the wrong side during the revolution, Sergio was soon out of a job as a soldier.

He was introduced to weightlifting during his post-military years hanging out on the Cuban beaches. Though he had never touched a barbell until age 18, this lean, superbly built teenager gained 35-pounds of muscle in 18 months and within two year of being introduced to Olympic weightlifting was chosen to represent Cuba at the 1962 Central American and Caribbean Games hosted in Kingston, Jamaica.

While in Jamaica for the Games, Sergio Oliva jumped through a hotel window and ran, like Usain Bolt, through the streets of Kingston, chased by Cuban secret police and KGB “handlers.” Sergio shook his pursuers and made his way to the American consulate where he requested and was granted political asylum. In 1963 Sergio moved to Chicago, initially working double-shifts in a steel mill. He then took the lowest paying job in the gruesome Chicago stockyards. A hard worker with awkward English, he was promoted to butcher’s helper. Sergio had a fantastic work ethic and engaging personality. He eventually was promoted to stockyard butcher.

While Arnold was laying on the beach getting a tan with bikini babes, Sergio was breaking down 600-pound sides of beef 10-hours a day. He would clean up and six days a week head to the Duncan YMCA for two-hour hardcore free weight workout. This kind of morning-to-night hard work will boost a man’s metabolism and make him fitter, more able to train harder and longer.

Sergio Oliva was born perfectly proportioned. Structurally, he was flawless: wide shoulders, a tiny waist, muscular hips atop perfect length legs (in relation to his torso.) Sergio was born with great natural calves and forearms (they usually travel together) and oddly and beneficially (for a bodybuilder) Oliva had big bones and a small head: the former allowed him to grow large muscles, the latter made everything else about him seem larger.

Sergio had a small noggin. His smallish head created an optical illusion, making his outrageously proportioned body parts seem geometrically enhanced. From 1967 to 1972 his physique morphed from great into incredible into sci-fi like, pure space alien. He was unprecedented. No bodybuilder in history had ever been further in front of the rest of the world.

Most perfectly proportioned men are smallish svelte creatures, light-boned elves – Sergio was a perfectly proportioned Ork. He had thick, 8-inch wrists, mastodon-like bones, yet all his limb lengths and insertion points were anatomy-book perfect.

He took up bodybuilding at age 21, weighing 195-pounds and already an international-level Olympic weightlifter. Over the next five -years he pushed his bodyweight from 195 to 240-pounds – while improving his muscularity: he increased his body weight by 24% while simultaneously lowering his body fat percentile. He competed for the Olympia during his peak years working as a Chicago police officer.

Add to his early-on high intensity day-jobs his six-day a week, high-volume, high-intensity weight training sessions, and it is easy to understand how Sergio Oliva built his blazing, blast-furnace metabolism that allowed him to eat massively and indiscriminately and still stay shredded. His level of intense activity was such that he had to consume massive amounts of calories everyday just to cope with the pounding.

Mr. Perfectly Proportion created a blast furnace metabolism that allowed him to eat all the time and whatever he wanted. Sergio was once caught stuffing his face on pastries in a German bakery three days before the Olympia – he took second to Schwarzenegger in an IFBB/Weider Bros screw job. Everyone in the know knew that Sergio blew Arnold away in every single body part – save arms – and Sergio had just as low a body fat percentile and was better proportioned. There were other Olympia competitions where Arnold rightly beat Oliva. As Joe Weider said of Sergio, “No one could beat you – when you were in shape!”

Sergio Oliva resented the attention and money the Weider’s lavished on Arnold. He eventually teamed up with a dude named Dan Lurie, a man intent on fighting the Weider’s for control of bodybuilding. Lurie put out a cheapo magazine called Muscle Training Illustrated. He and Sergio reached a financial agreement and a series of articles were published featuring Oliva. I came across this gem of an article from 1973 last week. In it, Sergio states with great solemnity,

“This is my only true Sergio Oliva training routine. Since 1970, these are the only exercises I have been doing. Any other exercises printed in any other (Weider) magazine is FALSE!”  There you go. Without further ado let us examine the training of The Myth. This routine was done during his peak years and mirrors the stories the late Jeff Everson used to tell me about watching Sergio train at the Duncan Y in Chicago in those peak years.

Sergio Oliva Training - His ONLY TRUE 6-day a week training split

Monday – chest, back, shoulders

Superset bench press with wide-grip pullups

Set 1 bench 185x8                  chin 15-reps

Set 2 bench 225x8                  chin 15-reps

Set 3 bench 265x8                  chin 10-reps

Set 4 bench 305x8                  chin 10-reps

Set 5 bench 325x8                  chin 8-reps

Set 6 bench 355x8                  chin 8-reps

Set 7 bench 385x8                  chin 5-reps


dumbbell flyes 5 sets of 15 reps; work up to a pair of 80s

dips                      5 sets of 15 reps; weighted, work to 100# hung on dip belt

Tuesday – shoulders & arms

Overhead barbell press (taken out of the racks) 5 sets of 15 reps working up to 205x15


Standing barbell curl                                          5 sets of 5 reps working up to 205x5

Lying triceps extension                                      5 sets of 5 reps working up to 205x5

Scott (preacher bench) curl w/barbell            5 sets of 10 reps working up to 155x10

Seated overhead dumbbell triceps extension 5 sets of 5 reps working up to 60-pound dumbbells

Scott (preacher bench) curl w/dumbbells      5 sets of 5 reps working up to a pair of 60s

Triceps cable pushdowns                                   5 sets of 10 reps working up to the entire weight stack

Wednesday – abs, thighs & calves

Sit-ups       10 sets of 50 reps

leg raises    5 sets of 20 reps

side-bends 5 sets of 200 (45-pound bar behind neck, bend to each side)

squats         315x5, 405x5, 455x5, 475x5, 505x5

calf raise     315 pounds for 10 sets of 8 reps

Thursday - chest, shoulders, lats

Bench Press 205 x 5, 225 x 5, 265 x 5, 305 x 5, 325 x 5, 355 x 5, 385 x 5


Press Behind the Neck 5 sets of 5 reps working up to 250 x 5

Rowing Machine           5 sets of 10 reps working up to 205 x 10

Dumbbell press seated 5 sets of 10 reps working up to 80s

Barbell row                     5 sets of 8 reps working up to 275

Friday - arms, lats


Narrow-grip triceps press   3 sets of 5 reps working up to 205 x 5

Standing barbell curls          3 sets of 5 reps working up to 205 x 5

E-Z curl bar triceps press    3 sets of 5 reps working up to 205 x 5

Preacher bench curls            3 sets of 5 reps working up to 205 x 5

Preacher bench dumbbell    3 sets of 5 reps working up to 50s x 5

Preacher bench tricep press 3 sets of 5 reps working up to 50s x 5

Chin, under-grip for biceps  3 sets of 10 reps working up to 50s x 5

Tricep pushdown                    3 sets of 10 reps working up to 50s x 5

Chin behind neck                    5 sets of 5-10 reps

Saturday – abs, thighs & calves

Sit-ups                                     5 sets of 10 reps (weighted)

Leg raises                                5 sets of 10 reps

Side bends with 45-pounds 5 sets of 50 reps

Squats                                      8 sets working up to 405 x 10 then 3 sets of 20-reps with 250

Front squat                             5 sets of 10 working up to 205

Sitting calf raise                     5 sets of 5 reps working up to 200

I get tired just reading the entire Sergio Oliva training program. He uses a very small number of exercises with a wide range of reps. His 8-rep sets with 385 make you wonder what his 1-rep max would have been. His low-rep curls, 5-rep sets are unexpected. Note that Sergio had knocked the hell out of his triceps on Monday with five sets of weighted dips and again the following day?! I pulled out the calculator: 190 sets per week. This is high-volume/high-intensity work that I would suggest, was made possible by cutting and stacking cane, marching around the jungles, working in steel mills and as a butcher. His unique background gave him a unique ability to train both maximally and for extended periods.

Below: photographic documentation of his incredible transformation. 

Bodybuilder Sergio Oliva 1967 weighing 195 pounds
Bodybuilder Sergio Oliva 1967 weighing 195 pounds


Bodybuilder Sergio Oliva 1972 weighing 240 pounds: the greatest of all time. The Brother from another planet.
Bodybuilder Sergio Oliva 1972 weighing 240 pounds: the greatest of all time. The Brother from another planet.


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About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.